In 2015 a new summary of pain management guidelines for dogs and cats was released. This summary, intended for veterinarians, includes information to help pet owners recognize the signs of pain in their dogs and cats, along with a discussion for non-drug treatments for pain.

The most accurate way to determine if your pet is in pain is through observation of his or her behavior. Examples of changes in behavior that might indicate pain include:

  • Decreased ability to walk as far or as frequently
  • Difficulty standing, doing stairs or jumping up or down off of furniture
  • Changes in urine and stool habits

For cats these changes in behavior may be more subtle and harder to detect. Some cats may just become more resistant to petting, handling or stroking of the back and legs. Other cats may hide. Cats that frequently sit hunched with their front legs folded underneath them may be painful or having difficulty breathing. Decreased grooming and matted fur, decreased appetite and increased aggression towards other cats and people are also signs of pain.

In the last few years many new (or even ancient in the case of acupuncture) approaches to pain management have become popular. Ideally, if pain management can be addressed from multiple different angles and utilize an integrative approach, the pet will achieve comfort without the use of potentially harmful medications. These alternative therapies can delay the need to use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) for chronic pain. Examples of NSAIDS include carpofen, Metacam, Deramaxx and aspirin. NSAIDS decrease the micro-circulation of blood in the joints and actually speed the progression of arthritis. Therefore any alternative therapies that delay the need for NSAIDS will provide a better long term outcome for your dog or cat.


One of the most important aspects of pain management is weight management. Fat tissue actually secretes inflammatory substances (called cytokines) that contribute to arthritic pain. Being overweight also adds extra stress and strain to the joints and ligaments. Maintaining a lean body condition from a young age dramatically reduces the incidence of arthritis in pre-disposed breeds. Feeding a home cooked diet is a great way to address weight loss. Commercially prepared dry and canned food can actually contribute to inflammation due to the processed nature of the ingredients. On the other hand, a home cooked diet can be used to reduce inflammation, reduce pain and promote tissue healing. I prefer the balanced diets available in Dr. Richard Pitcairn’s book Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats. For cats a freeze dried or frozen raw diet is generally better accepted then a home cooked diet. These diets are generally free of carbohydrates and therefore are less inflammatory. Popular brands include Nature’s Variety, Stella and Chewies, and Primal.


Acupuncture has been used for many centuries to treat painful conditions but it wasn’t until 1998 that the National Institute of Health recognized acupuncture as having applications in human medicine, especially pain management. Acupuncture is extremely helpful to control pain in dogs and cats particularly if that pain originates from the back or neck. Acupuncture is able to increase blood flow and release muscle spasms that cause spinal pain. Back pain can occur secondary to arthritis in the hips, knees, elbows and shoulders in both dogs and cats.


Chinese herbal formulas are typically classified into two categories: tonic herbal formulas and clearing herbal formulas. Tonic herbal formulas tonify, or build up the body, much as food is used to nourish and heal the body. Tonic herbal formulas, such as those used for kidney, heart, or arthritis problems, can be used for long periods of time, assuming the condition still exists. On the other hand, clearing formulas, ones that are used to treat infections, traumas, or digestive concerns, are often used for a short period of time, possibly only a few days to weeks.


Herbal treatments are often combined with acupuncture to aid its effectiveness. Herbal products used for pain generally increase blood flow and micro-circulation to the painful area, along with providing anti-inflammatory substances. Common anti-inflammatory herbs include turmeric and boswellia.


Glucosamine sulfate containing joint supplements have been on the market for many years. Products vary widely in ingredients and quality. Many pet products contain other food substances to increase palatability. Human products are generally preferred due to better quality control. Injectable glucosamine products (referred to as polysulfated glycosaminoglycans or Adequan) can be of added benefit to animals with arthritis, especially if they have reactions or a poor response to the oral products.


Regular moderate exercise will not only aid in weight loss and weight management, but also increase circulation to the affected areas helping to relieve pain and inflammation. Physical therapy is helpful after surgery to increase muscle strength and stamina. Playing with your cat’s favorite toy can function as a form of physical therapy for your furry friend.
In summary, if your pet is exhibiting behavioral changes that may be related to pain, contact a veterinarian to assess the possible causes of that pain. Then focus on weight loss if necessary and change to a less processed homemade diet. Your pet deserves the best care you can offer, especially as they age.


Holistic Veterinary Center

Holistic Veterinary Center
34 West Street, Concord, NH  03301
Phone: 603-225-9680 • Fax: 603-227-0945